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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Eulogy or Political Statement?

The words "Iraqi Freedom" appear prominently on Lance Cpl. Gregory Rund's tombstone at Colorado's Fort Logan National Cemetery. His parents wanted it that way.

The words “Iraqi Freedom” appear prominently on Lance Cpl. Gregory Rund’s tombstone at Colorado’s Fort Logan National Cemetery. His parents wanted it that way.

“That’s just the term that the military uses to name the battle,” said his father, Mark Rund.

Nonetheless, some families across the country are questioning whether that term is more of a political slogan than a phrase fit for a grave.

Unlike earlier wars, many military-issued gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are inscribed with the operation names the Pentagon selected to promote public support for the conflicts.

Families of fallen soldiers and Marines are being told they can choose to have the government-furnished headstones engraved with “Operation Enduring Freedom” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom” at no extra charge, whether they are buried in Arlington or elsewhere. A mock-up shown to many families includes the operation names.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says the headstones serve no public-relations purpose and that the families have the last word.

“We work with families to make sure they are happy with it in advance,” said Elaine Buehler, a spokeswoman for the VA at Fort Logan. “We have actually had times when we have made changes for somebody.”

The vast majority of military gravestones from other eras are inscribed with just the basic, required information: name, rank, military branch, date of death and, if applicable, the war and foreign country in which the person served.

Families are supposed to have final approval over what goes on the tombstones. That hasn’t always happened.

Nadia and Robert McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq in June 2004, said “Operation Iraqi Freedom” ended up on his government-supplied headstone in Oceanside, Calif., without family approval.

Since 1997, the government has been paying for virtually everything inscribed on the gravestones. Before that, families had to pay the gravestone makers separately for any inscription beyond the basics.

It wasn’t until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the department instructed national-cemetery directors and funeral homes across the country to advise families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen that they could have operation names like “Enduring Freedom” or “Iraqi Freedom” included on the headstones.

VA officials say neither the Pentagon nor the White House exerted any pressure to get families to include the operation names. They say families always had the option of including information like battle or operation names, but didn’t always know it.

VA officials say they don’t know how many families of the more than 2,000 servicewomen and servicemen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan have opted to include the operation names.

(Contact Chris Barge of the Rocky Mountain News at